Waiting is a wonderful example of the so called ‘Hindie’ development in Indian film production – films made mainly in Hindi but not as part of mainstream Bollywood or specifically as art films. Instead they are ‘Hindi Independent films’. However, as I’ve indicated in the title of this post, the language of Waiting is officially registered by the Central Board of Film Certification as ‘Hinglish’. This means that the dialogue between the central characters is usually conducted in the English used by educated middle-class Indians punctuated by phrases from Hindi that are slipped in almost unconsciously. Some of the minor characters speak Hindi. Even though the action is mainly located in Kerala, nobody (that I noticed) speaks in Malayalam – but there is a joke about a character’s refusal to do so and about North v. South speech patterns generally. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t see much of Kerala apart from a couple of scenes by the backwaters – Kochi (Cochin) is one of the main tourist destinations in India. It wouldn’t be appropriate to have too many beautiful landscapes/waterscapes in this film. It’s mainly an internal narrative for the two central characters. The setting in Kerala is important for a narrative that is built around binaries – in this case the the calmer, more academic/intellectual tone of middle class Kerala and the more brash, materialistic world of Mumbai. Further binaries are associated with age/generation and with the backgrounds of the film’s two stars. Naseeruddin Shah has been a leading actor in India for more than forty years, going back to the parallel cinema of the 1970s/80s as well as later appearing in Bollywood and international films. Kalki Koechlin had a first major role only in 2009 but quickly established herself in the new world of ‘Hindie’ films, becoming something of a ‘poster girl’ for this new type of Indian film. When this couple come together there are many opportunities for narrative development.
The two stars play characters who meet at the very swish new hospital in Kochi (Cochin) where their respective spouses have been admitted, each in a comatose state. Shah’s character Shiv is a retired professor whose wife has been supported for some time on a ventilator and it seems unlikely that she will ever wake up. The cost of her care is steadily bankrupting Shiv after the medical insurance benefits have run out, but still he hopes for a recovery. Koechlin’s character Tara has just flown in from Mumbai after hearing that her new husband has been in a serious road accident during a business trip and she will face decisions about major operations that she must sanction knowing they carry significant risks – but also that they are needed if he is to recover at all. This sounds like it could be a distressing narrative or that it might turn into a sentimental Hollywood type of film. Instead it becomes a deeply humanist film about two people who develop a relationship in very difficult circumstances. Very importantly, there are no contrived endings for either character. The drama – and the comedy – in the film develops from the situations in which the characters find themselves and how they react differently and still try to support each other.
The comedy comes from the clash between Shiv’s fairly austere and cultured academic and Tara’s modern young woman enmeshed in social media. It is also there in the behaviour of minor characters of the young man representing Tara’s husband’s company and Shiv’s neighbour’s maid who brings him home-cooked food. These are polite young Keralites bemused by both Shiv and Tara. The narrative also has a kind of ‘pantomime villain’ in the shape of the doctor/consultant Malhotra looking after both medical cases. He’s played by actor-writer-director Rajat Kapoor, another major figure from independent cinema in India. It’s a difficult role and the film gently satirises Malhotra as appearing like a ‘company man’ mouthing platitudes and dealing with the economics of the care as much as the medical prognosis. Yet Dr Malhotra has difficult decisions to make just like everyone else. In a flashback we do see Shiv’s life with his wife who is played by Suhasini, the partner of Tamil director Mani Ratnam. This flashback is balanced in the narrative in structural terms by the arrival of Tara’s best friend Ishita who provides advice and support, some of it helpful, some of it not. But the final decisions must remain with Tara and Shiv.
Waiting is written and directed by Anu Menon, making it part of the celebration of ‘Women in Global Cinema’ at HOME in Manchester during 2019 (the film shoot also had a primarily female crew). Anu Menon is from a South Indian background but she grew up in Delhi, gained a degree at a prestigious technical university and then began to work in advertising. Eventually she realised that selling soap and soft drinks was not what she wanted to do and she enrolled at the London Film School. Waiting is her second fiction feature. The film was shot by Neha Parti Matiyani who is one of the few experienced women in the Hindi film industry.
When I screened this film for an audience the first time, I remember one person suggesting that it wasn’t very ‘Indian’ – in fact it could have been set anywhere. I was reminded of that comment this week when I have been working on the film Timbuktu and watching interviews with its director Abderrahmane Sissako. His view seems to be that stories are usually about people and that people everywhere face similar problems, only the context and how we view them and their problems changes. This is I think one of the tenets of the humanism that has informed many of the most successful ‘global filmmakers’ since 1945. Waiting is a humanist film that just happens to involve the educated middle-class. It does make me wonder, however, what is happening in private hospitals like this during the coronavirus pandemic in India. Waiting seems to have been well received by critics in India but its box office results arguably don’t match the appreciation that most critics and audiences expressed. I don’t think the film received a UK release and these Hindie films still struggle to get a release in the UK unless they are acquired by a UK arthouse distributor. The film has been compared to films like The Lunchbox (2013), which did well in the UK through Curzon, and I would recommend Waiting. It can be found online and on DVD in the UK.
For several reasons this film is key to an understanding of what ‘Not Just Bollywood’ might mean in relation to the history of film traditions in India and in particular, the history of filmmaking described as ‘independent’ or ‘parallel cinema’ which is the primary interest of the season’s co-curator Dr Omar Ahmed. I’ll try to explain.
The title of the film may not mean much outside India. The story is located in a ‘colony’ in the small hill town of McCluskiegunj (or ‘ganj’) in what is now Jharkhand state but which in 1979, when the story is set, was part of Bihar. The colony was originally set up in 1933 by a Calcutta businessman named McCluskie as a settlement for members of the then substantial community of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. The film represents the directorial debut of the celebrated actor Konkona Sen Sharma. She wrote the screenplay herself, based on a story written by her father Mukul Sharma and with assistance by Disha Rindani. Konkona’s mother, the equally celebrated Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen, has a small ‘voice only’ part in the film.
A Death in the Gunj received many nominations for the 2018 Filmfare Awards in India, winning some technical awards and the award for ‘Debutant Director’. The reviews were generally very good and the film played at Toronto and other major festivals. I was surprised that many of the reviews failed to mention that the story is about an Anglo-Indian family. This suggests to me that the drama (and, at times, comedy of ‘manners’) was perhaps not fully appreciated by some reviewers outside India. As Wikipedia helpfully suggests, the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ has been used in three different ways. Historically it might refer to those British colonial administrators and soldiers who spent most of their lives in India during the Raj (and earlier) or the original communities of Indians living in the UK. Now, however, it tends to refer specifically to the families formed through mixed marriages whose members tended to form distinct communities in various cities, but especially in Calcutta, during the early 20th century. Anglo-Indians tended to speak English and to identify as Christians. Before 1947 they were mainly employed in administrative jobs but after Independence the communities declined as many families emigrated to the UK and other Anglophone countries.
Anglo-Indians appear in several well-known films. The Hollywood adaptation of John Masters’ novel Bhowani Junction (novel 1954, film 1956) stars Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and Bill Travers and was directed by George Cukor. It focused on a railway family (a key Anglo-Indian profession) living close to the partition line in 1947. Satyajit Ray includes an Anglo-Indian character in Mahanagar (The Big City, India 1963). This character, a young woman in Calcutta working for a new company in the early 1950s, enables Ray to explore a range of issues about modernity and prejudice and to contrast this character with the film’s protagonist, a young Bengali housewife attempting to start a working life outside the home. Anglo-Indians in Bengali narratives of the 1950s-70s invariably cue social issues. A Death in the Gunj features mainly English dialogue for the family members with some Hindi and Bengali used with the house servants (who are local tribal people).
A Death in the Gunj focuses on one central family who are hosting a New Year holiday gathering. The parents who live in a house in the Gunj forest are played by Tanuja and Om Puri as the Bakshis. Their guests include their son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and small daughter Tani (Arya Sharma). The other family member is their nephew Shutu (Vikram Massey). The other guest staying in the house is Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). But over the holiday period there are a number of other visitors who also have family in the Gunj. Nandu’s friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) who is a highly disruptive influence (and who seems to spend time away from his new wife Purnima (Promila Pradhan)) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) is hoping to leave for Australia are both present for many scenes. In this mixed group it soon becomes clear that there is a bully and a character who is bullied, but most of the characters are self-centred in their own ways. There are also clear conflicts in terms of class, gender, age and ethnicity. I’ve seen the film described as a critique of patriarchy, which may indeed be the case, but for me the central reference is to a couple of Satyajit Ray films and no doubt others I know less well.
I was immediately reminded of Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1969) in which a quartet of young (upper) middle-class young men from Calcutta spend a week in a forest resort area (forcing a caretaker to break rules and open a government bungalow) in Bihar. They insult the local tribal people and then team up with a family group from Calcutta, including two bright and socially confident young women. There is a direct link between this film and A Death in the Gunj in the form of Aparna Sen who has a small role in each film. I also think that Ray’s earlier film Kanchenjungha (1964) and Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) (in which Konkona Sen Sharma stars) offer clues about the scenario of urban sophisticates on holiday or travelling away from Calcutta.
I personally see this film as a critique of Bengali upper middle-class mores worked through by an Anglo-Indian family (i.e. without the same resources or social status). Perhaps they are struggling with the British legacy (why is the story set in 1979?). Shutu is suffering because he is not ‘manly’ and is also a ‘failure’ as a student. Mimi is ‘modern’ but struggling with her sexuality and independence, O.P. (the Om Puri father character) in one of his last roles is playing a character whose time seems to be up and Nandu and Bonnie are struggling to bring up Tani in a modern family set-up. The tribals are treated badly or are ignored by most of the house party except Shutu.
As well as the links back to the films of Ray and her mother, Konkona Sen Sharma also links to the new ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ and to the more radical strains in contemporary commercial Hindi cinema. Ranvir Shorey has been a star of both commercial and Hindie films (he was married to Konkona Sen Sharma from 2010-2015). Om Puri straddled both sectors and Konkona herself straddles Bengali cinema, Bollywood and the independents. It’s no surprise that the film shares actors with three of the other films in the HOME season. Tillotama Shome stars in Sir and Kalki Koeklin in Waiting. Vikrant Massey has a supporting role in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Konkona Sen Sharma herself is one of the four leads in that film. The benefits of all these links include a strong sense of ensemble performance with support for the debutant director.
A Death in the Gunj is a remarkable début for Konkona the director and I was completely engaged throughout. The film isn’t a mystery as the death is represented at the beginning of the film, though in a rather oblique way, and then a flashback forms the main part of the narrative presenting the events which led up to the tragedy. I want to praise the cinematography by Sirsha Ray and the background score by Sagar Desai. I was in that forest, feeling the cold of December and experiencing the tensions in the family. The real tragedy is that the film was not released in the UK. It would easily stand up to comparison with any UK/US or European releases. However, I realise that the audiences who enjoyed the films of Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1970s in the UK are now much harder to find. Still, well done to HOME for giving us the chance to see the such a wonderful film.
It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.
The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).
The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.
The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.
Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s then partner) at this point?
What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.
It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.
Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’:
That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to me very much a ‘gamechanger’ movie. It isn’t perfect and in the final scenes there was a moment when it didn’t seem to work, but overall I was riveted by this glimpse into an Indian world that I haven’t seen before on screen. I was a little taken aback by some of the very negative reviews, but heartened by the equally positive ones.
Anurag Kashyap has been called the ‘Godfather of Indian Independent Cinema’ and this film, which he directed from a script he co-wrote with his partner Kalki Koechlin (the ‘girl’ of the title), is certainly a good example of what an Indian ‘independent film’ might be. Koechlin is herself an Indian woman born to French parents who were then living in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Educated in a school following the British system and subsequently at Goldsmiths, University of London she speaks French, English, Tamil and now Hindi. She plays the central character of Ruth – a British young woman who has come to India to find her father, ‘Arjun Patel’, who left the family’s home in the UK when she was a baby. He’s written her a letter but he doesn’t seem to want to be found. As a tourist, Ruth is struggling to get a visa to allow her to stay and in the meantime she earns money illegally as a masseuse in Mumbai, offering what she euphemistically describes as ‘handshakes’ for an extra Rs1,000. She appears to have a live-in boyfriend with a coke habit and she has hired a private detective to look for her father.
The narrative of the film is, to be honest, quite sketchy. Ruth seems trapped in a circuit between the visa office, her apartment, the massage parlour and meetings with people who might be able to help her – including trips to Pune where she is pursuing a possible connection in an ashram. At one point a gangster from Karnataka turns up searching for money that her boyfriend owes. Much more important than the story, for me at least, is the presentation of this world. Kashyap has said that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Bicycle Thieves and he has worked with Michael Winterbottom and has in turn inspired Danny Boyle. His work on Trishna with Winterbottom was after he made this film, but I’m wondering if he’d already seen Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (partly shot in Pune) and some of his British films. There are a couple of shots of Koechlin moving through Mumbai streets that reminded me of Gina McKee walking through London’s Soho in Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom was in turn influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s films such as Fallen Angels (HK 1996).
Koechlin herself is wonderful, whether she is on her own, trading lines with a ‘parallel cinema‘ great like Naseeruddin Shah, or sparring with one of the much less experienced talents on show. The opening scenes are terrific (Koechlin is reported to have written these herself). If you’ve never been a tourist in India, these scenes give an accurate representation of waiting for Indian bureaucracy at work, but what they really offer is a sense of what it might feel like to be a young woman with white skin who speaks a little Hindi and who is vulnerable in the face of police and visa controls.
As in Kashyap’s other films that I’ve seen, the music is very good. The sources of music material seem to range over several genres and regions. Kashyap also seems to employ the same cinematographer on most of his films – FTII graduate Rajeev Ravi. Extravagant camerawork is common in Bollywood but this is controlled and uses locations very well. It’s amazing to think that the entire film was shot in 13 days.
Here’s India’s biggest film of the year so far, a Karan Johar production no less. The Hindi title translates as ‘This Youth Is Crazy’ – not really very helpful as a title as the film is bang-centre mainstream and conventional. I decided to see it partly because I’ve been impressed by two of the leads, Ranbir Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin, in previous films and partly because I wanted to try to keep abreast of where mainstream Bollywood is going. I enjoyed the film but the central story is probably not strong enough to sustain the running time of around 150 minutes and the second part of the film seemed less successful than the first.
The first half is told in a flashback to eight years ago when three friends from school each now in their early twenties are about to set off for a trekking holiday in the Himalayas. Aditi (Kalki Koechlin) then meets a fourth acquaintance from school, Naina (Deepika Padukone), who decides at the last minute to join the trip. Studying medicine, Naina is trying to escape from her image of being the school nerd. The two young men Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) and Avi (Aditya Roy Kapoor) rather ignored her at school and the trip is Naina’s chance to prove them wrong. After the intermission, the film moves into full-on wedding mode. To be fair, it’s not quite the wedding we were expecting but in narrative terms it’s not really exploited that much. What was also disappointing for me was that whereas in the first half there was some grounding in ‘real India’, albeit for middle-class youth, the second half is typical Bollywood indulgence in glamour with overseas shoots and a beautiful Udaipur palace location. Throughout both halves, the colours are bright, the dancing impressive and the music often deafening (especially in a relatively empty cinema for an early evening show).
Nevertheless I found the film interesting. It does what Bollywood ‘coming of age’/romance/musicals should do and offers mainstream entertainment that is fresh and palatable for most audiences. Ranbir Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin are wasted because they aren’t asked to be different enough. Deepika Padukone takes her opportunity well but Aditya Roy Kapoor is also not given enough to do. I’m not giving too much away if I say that the film’s resolution is what we expect but that it is undercut by a composition that sees Bunny/Ranbir’s face in close-up gazing towards the audience over Naina/Deepika’s shoulder with an ambivalent expression. The ending (on New Year’s Eve) also sees one of the characters in isolation – with a drink problem and a failing business. This doesn’t seem conventional at all.
Hunting round the reviews I found some interesting comments. Bollywoodtrade pointed to what were claimed as links to 3 Idiots. Bunny does in fact follow a similar career path to one of the three students and he carries around a letter for the first half of the film that he produces at Intermission time and which changes the narrative. There is also a succesful engineer in the film – a ‘moneybags’ set up to marry someone. I’m not sure that there is much else but the comparison is interesting Chetan Bhagat’s novels seem to offer much more depth in their ideas – even if some of the film adaptations don’t take them too far – and I don’t think that Yeh Jaawani Deewani will prove to be as influential as 3 Idiots. However, the Bollywoodtrade review makes some other points. It’s a review drawing on a screening in Indore with ‘real audiences’ and the reviewer quotes the approval of an older man approving of the message that ‘marriage should come before career’. The review also suggests that the film is successful because the ‘wedding season’ is in full swing in India (and it’s true that, much like Monsoon Wedding, there is some focus on what goes into the wedding preparations). On the other hand, the film is seen as in some way ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’ in that the younger male and female characters discuss physical relationships quite openly – and that they drink in the manner of Western young people (too many spirits for my taste). This latter isn’t new of course, whisky drinking was a feature of Hindi cinema in the 1960s – but it was usually a sign of a dissolute life.
As a contrast to this, AccessBollywood, a blog by an ‘entertainment writer’ in Chicago, takes the film to task for its sexism. Kathy Gibson suggests that the film switches gear away from Naina in the first half to focus on Bunny in the second half. She thinks he’s a bit of a jerk and that the narrative should remain focused on Naina. I agree with her overall view of the film and as I’ve indicated already, I think that Deepika Padukone has the best-written part and she handles it well. There is a sequence towards the end of the film when Naina persuades Bunny to stay and watch a sunset rather than dashing off (he’s been to lots of places and done lots of things, perhaps he should chill a bit more?). There is a running discussion about following dreams and deciding what to do with your life which I found quite affecting. This was good writing and the actors were capable of building on that but the script overall didn’t seem to know where to take it. One of the failures for me was not using Kalki Koechlin to the full. This woman has got a lot to offer but at the moment it seems to be independent cinema which knows how to exploit her talents to the full.
So, overall a fun night out but perhaps don’t try to read too much into Yeh Jaawani Deewani. On a technical level, however, it’s clear that Bollywood entertainment is in safe hands.